Book Review: Finding Zero by Amir Aczel

22313665Title: Finding Zero: A Mathematician’s Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers

Author: Amir Aczel

Genre: Nonfiction, Science, History, Mathematics

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Published: January 6, 2015

Page Amount: 256 pages

Blurb From Goodreads:The invention of numerals is perhaps the greatest abstraction the human mind has ever created. Virtually everything in our lives is digital, numerical, or quantified. The story of how and where we got these numerals, which we so depend on, has for thousands of years been shrouded in mystery. Finding Zero is an adventure filled saga of Amir Aczel’s lifelong obsession: to find the original sources of our numerals. Aczel has doggedly crisscrossed the ancient world, scouring dusty, moldy texts, cross examining so-called scholars who offered wildly differing sets of facts, and ultimately penetrating deep into a Cambodian jungle to find a definitive proof. Here, he takes the reader along for the ride.

Why Read: Although I find actual math (as in Algebra, Geometry, etc, etc) to be potentially one of the things that I am worst at in the world, abstract math and the history of numbers is something entirely different. I adore everything Amir Aczel has written. I love the way that he combines history and the advancement of formulas into a beautiful text that speaks to those who are not numerically skilled. So… there’s little doubt that I was going to read this book.

Review: Whenever we get to trace in the footsteps of great discoveries or adventurers, there’s a sense of excitement in the air. Following Amir Aczel as he tries to locate the origin of zero gave me that same feeling that Indiana Jones watchers might remember. The book starts by tracing Aczel’s own origins as the son of a ship captain and his earliest memories learning about numbers and about the past that holds them captive.

The story continues to trace his own academic routes of discovery through ancient civilizations such as Babylon, Ancient Greece and Rome where he attempts to find out: where did our numbers come from? One particular moment that I enjoyed was Aczel’s attempt to work in Cambodia and Vietnam, where he ran into multiple problems due to a lack of conservation and the Khmer Rouge. Some of those passages were uniquely sad, because it really reminded me as a reader just how much knowledge and process was perhaps lost because powerful forces deemed academics a challenge to their authority.

Part of what made this book so interesting for me was the combination of travelogue and math history lesson. Aczel writes in a way that allows math history, even challenging concepts, to be accessible to practically anyone. I found myself beyond interested as he systemically described the different styles of counting and how they evolved and formed into the number system of today. It was such a fascinating read, and currently my reading quest is to find all other books by him and devour them as quickly as possible. I suggest you do the same.

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

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